Being a Woman · Nature of Academia · Teaching Political Science

Why Should I Care?

I got a student evaluation comment this term that really made me think. Not about my teaching or courses, but about my students and what my role is to them vs. what they perceive it should be. The eval was something to the effect of:

“She is passionate about the content and subject matter, but she doesn’t seem to really care about her students.”

At first, I kind of shrugged and thought, yes, that sounds accurate. I care about the content and what my students learn, but I’m not sure I care about my students. Well, let’s get specific here.  I care that they all receive the same equal opportunity to learn the content in my course. I care that they are provided with all the information they need to understand how to succeed.  I care that they are exposed to the material that I need them to learn.

But do I care about THEM?  I don’t know.  Is it my job to care about them?

We see that women in academia are penalized when they don’t exhibit nurturing behavior toward their students in a way that men aren’t.  Students are, perhaps, looking for their women professors to act more like mothers than professors/bosses/authority figures.

I have always held the firm and well-thought-out belief that there are other institutions both on campus and in their personal lives who exist to “care” about them.  Their families or friends. College counseling centers or Student Life offices.  And I do think part of my responsibility is to guide them to those resources if they need someone who can provide the “care” that I feel is beyond the scope of my profession.  The kind of “care” that could, perhaps, require someone more personally invested or professionally trained. The “care” that is absolutely never reflected back toward me (imagine me complaining to them that they don’t care enough about me!)

And also, the “care” that I am certainly never being rewarded for when I’m working toward tenure.

A recent Chronicle piece was slammed pretty heavily because the author seems so nonchalant and annoyed at what could potentially have been a real tragedy in a student’s life.  I understood that this was written in sarcasm/hyperbole.  I also understood the criticism:  that this woman was far too callous and “didn’t care about her students.”  But I also understood where she was coming from.

There are some students, those who have sought and created a mentoring relationship with me, about whom I care on a more personal level.  After many office hours visits or semesters in class, through voluntary independent study courses in which they write lengthy papers under my guidance, these students have shown that they really DO care about the course content, the information, and the discipline.  When those students have a work/life balance question or a personal crisis, I have certainly offered a listening ear or advice that would certainly fall under “caring.”

But there are students who would try to take advantage of the “caring,” like the student the author describes in her article.  So when a student that I have seen in class just a handful of times approaches me, asking for some sort of extension on an assignment, etc., either because of a personal crisis or just for no reason at all, my response is always the same:  I guide them to the university/community resources that can help them with whatever problem they’re experiencing, and I remind them of the very specific policies laid out in the syllabus for how extensions or late work will be handled. No judgement call on my part. No unfairness. No . . . caring.

Maybe it’s true.  Maybe I don’t care enough about them.  Our students are adults who are learning to navigate a world independently, where they must deal with adversity and learn how to find resources to overcome it.  My job is to teach them political science.  And while I certainly don’t mind providing information on resources available to my students, caring and nurturing students is a burden, sometimes a futile one or one that students will take advantage of.  It is a burden that is expected from women far moreso than men, and we aren’t rewarded for it.  So why should I care?

Nature of Academia · Teaching Political Science · This Week in Bad Journalism

Breaking News: Students with Higher Grades Give Higher Evaluation Scores

This article on the Chronicle defends student evaluations as “not worthless.”

We’ve talked about evaluations before, and the Poli Sci Bitches have strong beliefs that they are, in fact, worthless and biased against women.

But I just want to stop for a second and examine the claim that there is a 0.5 correlation between evaluations scores and student learning, because when I saw that, I was thinking, “I wonder how they measure student learning…”

It turns out, they measure student learning with grades.


Yes, I took a look at a few of those studies linked, and while they do acknowledge the problem of using something like final exam grades to measure student achievement, that’s pretty much what many of them do.

So, there’s a 0.5 correlation between student evaluations of you and how well they did in your class. And this means that evaluations are measuring that you’re a good teacher?  Actually, I think the causal arrow goes the wrong way. You’re getting good evaluations because the students got good grades. Maybe you’re an easy grader!

But wait, it gets better.  In the blog post linked by the author of the Chronicle piece, there is a lovely chart showing a 0.53 correlation between course averages and evaluations.  But it’s a HYPOTHETICAL chart.  It’s hypothetical data, based on “what we would expect based on previous studies.”  Check it out. Hypothetical data.

hypothetical data

I get the point that the blog was trying to make with this hypothetical data scatter plot – that professors with low evaluation scores aren’t necessarily worse, that they don’t necessarily give worse grades (pardon me, they don’t necessarily “fail to incite student learning”). I heartily agree with the notion that ordinal evaluations of professors cannot be compared or used to say whether one professor is better than the other.

But to me, this is exactly the reason why student evaluations are worthless.

Nature of Academia · Teaching Political Science

Taking a Stand: Dos and Don’ts for Political Science Professors in 2017

What are we??

Political Science Professors!

What do we want??

To take a stand against tyranny!

When do we want it??

Right after I finish this 3rd year review portfolio. And I have an R&R due. And a grad student is working on her prospectus. Also, I have to write my paper for MPSA and figure out how I can afford to stay at the Palmer House if the department won’t cover it… wait, sorry, what were we talking about?

Okay, so I can’t be the only one feeling this way.  I’ve protested! I’ve written my representatives!  What can I DO that will help me and help my country?

Some days I stare at my computer watching things like Trump’s executive orders, Trump’s violation of the Emoluments Clause, Trump appointing Steve Bannon to be in charge of security, Trump firing the acting Attorney General because she did what she said she would do in her confirmation hearing.

And after reading all that, I’m expected to walk into my political science class to teach about Central Bank Independence.

It feels like small potatoes compared to what’s happening every day in our political system.  And as political science professors, we are in an odd position.  I like to think we have, like the Fed perhaps, something of a dual mandate:  we are charged with teaching our undergraduate and graduate students what political science is (our typical job), but at the same time, we must connect what we’re teaching with why it matters, particularly in today’s climate, when some of us worry that the very foundations of American democracy are threatened.

But if you’re wondering what you can do, worry not.  Because what we’re doing every day in the classroom absolutely IS NOT small potatoes.  THIS is what you can do.  THIS is where the change happens.  You and your lectures make a difference for the future of this country, even when they’re about professionalization of legislatures.

This is our call to action, as well as a handy-dandy “Dos and Don’ts” list, for our follow political science professors, to help us take a stand for democracy and American values.

DOs and DON’Ts For Political Scientists in 2017

DO connect every. single. thing. you teach to what’s happening in the world today.  Is your lecture on democratic theory?  Guide your students to a discussion of how we would know if we’re no longer a democracy.  Are you teaching interpretation of regression coefficients? Find a regression table with corruption as one of the variables.  Do you teach International Political Economy? Explain what trade agreements are and what happens when a country ignores them.

DON’T connect it by bashing Donald Trump in every lecture. It’s counterproductive.  Now, we’re absolutely in favor of using what we know as political scientists to explain Trump’s actions, but if you constantly trash Trump, you’ll alienate some of your students, particularly if you’re at a conservative-leaning institution. So, don’t be afraid to call a spade a spade, but don’t do it with enough vitriol to alienate the very students you probably need to reach the most.

DO start thinking about where you could move if things go south.

DON’T pick a country without asking a Comparativist’s advice first.

DO teach your students how to get involved.  In every class we teach, there is an opportunity to teach students how to contact their representative, how to run for office, how to get involved in international organizations, how to join or start interest groups.  Encourage students to start student organizations, even (and maybe especially!) if they are Republican.  Intelligent and educated conservative voices are needed more than ever right now.  I can’t think of a class that couldn’t make time to talk about this, not even methods.

DON’T intentionally let yourself get put on the liberal professor watchlist. Yes, it’s hilarious, but it could also get really scary really fast.

DO adjust your syllabus, if needed. More readings written by women and people of color. Readings or in-class movies that show what could go wrong (1984! The Crucible!).  Make sure your syllabus sets an example and gets at the most important issues of the day.

DON’T show terrible dystopian movies (no Waterworld, please, even if it’s part of your unit on Climate Change).

DO teach how institutions are supposed to work, and why. What would a 20% tariff do? What happens if we don’t have an independent judiciary? What is the difference between a law and a norm?  Teach what our discipline has to say about all of these things, so that students can have a proper lens through which to view the world around them.

DON’T let alternative facts slide.  Our students need to be armed with real facts, not fake ones. They need to be able to identify real news and real science. They need to be able to distinguish between business-as-usual politics versus dangerous-for-democracy power grabs.  If you hear “alternative facts”, stop the discussion, teach students how to find credible sources, and challenge things that are blatantly inaccurate.  Students should be allowed and welcomed to have diversity of opinions in our classrooms, but lies and falsehoods should be stopped in their tracks.

Being a political science professor is a unique responsibility right now.  Go out and keep fighting the good fight. Even your most boring lecture matters!

Hilarious But True · Nature of Academia · Teaching Political Science

A Story of Grading… with Drinks

Scene: it’s the end of the semester. You have 85 final papers to grade from 2 classes. You know pedagogically why making students write a final paper is a good idea, but right now all you see is the torture you’ve given yourself and you’re wondering when you became a masochist. To help with your pain, you decide to open a bottle of wine.

Drink 1: Dear God, these kids can’t write. Some of them clearly have no grasp of basic grammar or spelling (“the affect of income on political beliefs”). Everyone gets a C-, if that.

Drink 2, because the first went really fast: Kids still can’t write, but you’re having a hard time forcing yourself to tell them so in the margins anymore. Only like 3 will come to your office to complain about a lack of feedback, right? Especially if you’re now giving everyone a B-.

Drink 3, because you’re grading so much faster now and will almost be done: it’s not SO bad if they switched the dependent and independent variables, right? And who knows, maybe political beliefs really could be predicted based on the kind of soda someone prefers. You’re now giving out more Bs than anything else, because some of these papers are damn creative.

Drink 4, because who’s counting anymore? You’re certain the paper in front of you is partially plagiarized from your own article published last year, but it’s so much work to deal with the Office of Student Conduct (and you’re kind of impressed at this student’s balls of steel). Give him a B-… eh, let’s make it a B, because at least he has good taste.

Drink 6, because you drank all of the last one contemplating how quickly integrity disappears after you’ve dealt with one too many screaming parents and weak administrators. Why bother actually reading any more papers? If you give everyone a B+, your life will be so much easier…

Drink 7: zzzzzzz

Scene: it’s the next morning. Your head hurts (really your whole body hurts, because you just can’t process booze like you used to) and your pride has taken a definite hit since you read your notes from last night. What did you mean by “err corr unt”? And half the notes aren’t even legible! Maybe they’ll think it looks like real doctor chicken scratch and assume you wrote something profound? The worst part is the grade you gave to some of this drivel. “Generous” is too kind a word for your complete and utter folding from the fear of bad student evaluations. Is it too early to open a new bottle of wine? Hey! Mimosas are for breakfast, right? Right.

Hilarious But True · Nature of Academia · Teaching Political Science

“I’m learning valuable career skills,” says student lounging in the lazy river.

I remember when I was in college.  I viewed my grades as a starting point, and I always knew to complain to the Dean when the grade wasn’t what I wanted.  I had my father call my professors and say, “I paid for this class, it was an expensive class, you need to be responsive.”  My evaluations of my professors were based solely on how easy the class was for me to pass.  When graduation was coming up, I knew it was the responsibility of my professors and of the career center to make sure I had a great job.

HAHAHAHAHA wouldn’t it be hilarious if that were true?

Oh crap. It is.  You see, a recent article has suggested that it’s the responsibility of professors to be sure their students get jobs after college.

Listen, I know it’s 2016 and we live in a world where nearly everyone goes to college. I know that the consumer model of higher education is creeping in more every day (the parent phone calls I receive seem to back this up), and that most students do see college as a means to get a better job than they would if they’d stopped after high school.  They’re right!

But I’m not quite ready to resign myself to the idea that a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science should be a vocational program.  To reframe my role as an expert in international relations into a role as a job coach.  To continue to erode the responsibilities of the students themselves.

The article does mention that “college officials will defend their career services by saying students should share the responsibility in finding a good job after graduation.” (emphasis mine)

But, share?  We’re starting with the assumption that professors and universities exist to help students find jobs?

I’m not sure that’s what my Ph.D. trained me to do.

The idea that colleges and universities exist to ensure every student has an equal outcome at the end of their college career seems to be more and more pervasive: that regardless of the student’s actions or agency, he will have a diploma that indicates he is career ready, and job offers thrown at him from all angles.

In this model, professors are no longer offering a chance for students to learn from the significant expertise of someone who has made her life’s work out of the intricacies of international negotiation.  No, we are offering a commodity:  an A in the course, so the student can check off the box on her degree plan that she achieved these four learning objectives and these 2 core curriculum skills.  And, when the student (or more likely, her parent) pays for this commodity but does not receive the final product (the A or the B, or the D for Diploma, am I right?), the next logical step is to complain and demand that this be corrected.

I completely agree with the article that there are students who will struggle more to navigate networking opportunities and identify ways to reach career goals. When a student reaches out to me for help, for ideas, and for advice, I always provide it. Students asking for help with their independent research, students needing help to know where to start looking for internships, students who don’t know which classes will help them achieve their career goals. They come to my office, and we sit down, and I help them. In fact, I even try to identify students who may be cautious and unwilling to ask, making sure they know what resources (including me!) are available to them.

From my experience as a professor (as an aside, I’m feeling more and more like I’m “in the trenches” rather than “in an ivory tower” these days), I can promise that the students who have the enthusiasm and ambition will succeed, because they will ask for help.

We don’t need to be hovering over the students as they lounge in the indoor beach (#4 – complete with waterfall!) and attend lawn parties (#5 – complete with real rap artists!) to make sure they’re networking and working toward being marketable after college.

Instead, we need to provide opportunities for students, via access to professors, career centers, and even networking events on campus.  The students who want to take advantage of these resources will do so.  Maybe  “If you build it, they will come” only applies to Kevin Costner’s baseball fields. Oh, and rock climbing walls.

-Candy Ann Richards

Nature of Academia · Teaching Political Science

On Student Evaluations

When you see an ad for a position that requires any kind of teaching, you’ll see a request for “evidence of teaching effectiveness. ” When you go up for tenure or promotion, a key part of your portfolio is demonstrating your abilities in the classroom.

How do we do this? One key way is student evaluations.*

However, student evaluations are far from uncontroversial. For a few reasons:
1. They’re biased.
2. Only certain students fill them out, which creates an inaccurate sample. The two groups that tend to fill out evaluations are the professor’s biggest fans, who want to gush about how they learned everything there is to know about government in this one semester, and the failures, who want to rant about how the professor turned them in to the Office of Student Conduct for copying and pasting an essay from online. This leads to wildly awesome (Professor X is basically Aristotle) or horrifically awful (Miss Y is a goddamn c*nt) reviews, neither of which are very truthful. Sometimes dedicated brown nosers fill them out, because they do everything the university tells them to do whether it makes sense or not, but this population is vanishingly small.
3. What do students know about good teaching? They aren’t educated on pedagogy, psychology, or much of anything (hence the reason they’re in college). They care about one thing and one thing only- their grade. Yeah, students can decide whether they liked a particular activity or teaching style, but 99 times out of 100 that “like” is entirely dependent on the grade the student got in that activity/teaching style. So why should these people be the ones deciding what counts as good teaching?
4. They’re increasingly written online- and we all know how online commenters are. This facet alone has many sub-issues:
-We don’t know when they actually write the evaluation in the week or so the online portal is available (after getting back a bad paper grade, perhaps? )
-Students can write them together, which might lead to one student commanding others what to say or a formation of group think
-The students feel more anonymous, which could be good (they are more honest) but is probably bad (they are much meaner)
5. Students don’t understand the purpose of evaluations. They see the evaluations as another thing to do at the end of the semester. They don’t know/don’t care that evaluations are an important measure for professors who need them for tenure and promotion, and surprisingly, a lot don’t know that evaluations are anonymous and professors don’t get to read them until after the semester is done (so their grade is completely unaffected). If they don’t know why they’re doing this, how much do you think they care about being accurate or thoughtful?

So, to sum up: student evaluations are terrible (and the use of them for hiring or promotion purposes maybe illegal). But what do we do to measure teaching effectiveness instead? It’s hard to be evaluated consistently by your boss (who has his own stuff to do) and self evaluations only cover so much (and are just as subject to bias as student evaluations). If you have enough students, the idea might be that the reviews will normalize as more observations occur, but what about professors at small institutions? These are the places that use student evaluations the most!

But even if we don’t know what else to do, until some of the issues with them are fixed, it’s inappropriate to rely on them so heavily. To say it in a way school officials will appreciate: you’re opening yourself up for a lawsuit.


-Margarita Thatcher


*There are others, like peer assessment or participating in pedagogical conferences, but neither of these are nearly as prevalent/respected as using student evaluations.



Being a Woman · Teaching Political Science

My Students Are Killing Me

Pretty much every university I know requires some sort of introduction to American government course for students.  These are service courses that most every student at the university has to take, and I have the great fortune to teach on a semi-regular basis.

I know that sometimes, as a woman in political science, I’m probably oversensitive to gender issues, and possibly even seeing them when they aren’t there. But, I can’t help but think that some of the things my students pull wouldn’t happen if their instructor were male. Let’s talk about some of them.

  1. Calling me Miss Firstname.  Miss Firstname.  Not even Mrs. Lastname, which while insulting, can at least be attributed to students having all female high school teachers.  I’ve never heard any of my male colleagues referred to as Mr. Firstname (or Mr. Lastname, really), so Miss Firstname is the worst.
  2. Questioning my Credibility.  One thing that tends to happen both in meetings with students and in my evaluations is students questioning whether I’m really qualified to decide whether they deserve a certain grade.  A student once complained to the Dean because I said he had to include citations in his paper. He told my Dean that, “just because she holds the opinion that information needs to be cited doesn’t mean that it actually does.”
  3. HEAVILY Playing the Sympathy Card.  I know every professor, male or female, gets the semesterly requests of “oh, something terrible happened to me, please give me an extension,” or, “I really, really need to get into nursing school, please bump my grade up.”  But I find that I often have students asking me to “have a heart” or “show a little kindness” or something similar.
  4. Calling in Reinforcements. Related to #2, I feel like students may try to go over the heads of female professors more often than male ones.  Whether it’s their parents or the Dean, it feels like at least one student per semester complains to management (don’t you love parent phone calls?).

Do they do this stuff to male professors? Really, I’m curious. My totally informal and nonscientific poll of my friends seems to say, “Not as much,” but speak up! And, are there things that students try to pull with male professors than they don’t with female ones?

-Miss Candy Ann